The world needs the Christian community in Bethlehem to survive: ‘By visiting us, Christian leaders are claiming their home’
Had not God burst into the world, my little town — the most famous on earth — might never have gone much beyond what it was 2000 years ago, a forgotten pastoral hamlet. But Christ was born in a cave here, one of two caves housed in the fourth-century Basilica of the Holy Nativity.
Within a century, Bethlehem had become the icon of pilgrimage destinations, the site of a bustling Christian community made up of descendants of those first witnesses to Christ. The Christians of the Holy Land are known as the “living stones” of the Church, because we are the guardians of that witness.
But for how much longer? The world is only gradually waking up to the relentless demise of my town. Bethlehem has survived as a tightly knit community because it has remained open to the world, offering hospitality to pilgrims over the centuries.
It is this openness that is now threatened by the Israeli-built concrete wall and the electric fences that encircle the urban core, separating us from our farms and recreational land, most of it privately owned. It has meant a drastic reduction in the number of pilgrims who visit us. Those that do are bussed in for an hour or two, and are reluctant to stay overnight. So they fail to meet us or visit many of the landmarks of the gospel in our town.
It has also meant that our livelihoods — long dependent on the land and water supplies, which have been annexed by the Israelis in the name of security — have shrivelled before our eyes, causing a gradual exodus of Christians abroad.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury and other British church leaders visit Bethlehem next week (News, 1 December), walking in the footsteps of the earliest Christian pilgrims, they will be unable to escape either the sight or the feeling of imprisonment. The geography of Bethlehem — a hill surrounded by other hills — means that the 30-foot-high concrete walls and fences, topped by watchtowers, are visible everywhere along the skyline, producing a relentless feeling of claustrophobia.
The route from Jerusalem that Dr Williams and his companions will take into the city — via a checkpoint — is closed to us. Palestinians are restricted to just one entrance and exit, a military checkpoint known as the “Container”. The name is an example of the mordant understatement that is so characteristic of the Palestinian sense of humour. Our container is a mundane metal box that has been converted into a convenience store for the queue of vehicles at the Israeli checkpoint. We tend to draw attention to the small things, perhaps because the larger things, so glaringly ugly and unjust, are beyond words. It is a trait common to all Palestinians — Christians and Muslims alike — as part of our shared experience of occupation.
It comes as a surprise to some pilgrims that Christians and Muslims form a single community in Bethlehem. It is perhaps the most important lesson — after the incarnation itself — that Bethlehem can offer the world. We are a multifaith community in a region that needs more such examples. Muslims and Christians have lived alongside each other for centuries, and, if we are given the chance, we will continue to do so. We are not being squeezed out by Islamism, but by economic hardship as a result of annexation of land, and entrapment behind a wall whose existence shames humanity.
A UN report into Christianity in Bethlehem predicts that our community will not survive another two generations. We live from pilgrimages, and our city is closed. We have traditionally stored our wealth in land, and our land behind the wall has been seized.
Our lives are intimately bound up, economically and socially, with the Christian community in Jerusalem, yet we are forbidden to enter that city, which lies only 20 minutes away. The Empress Helena’s two great constructions — the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — have been severed from each other, as have the two Christian communities that are guardians of these holy places.
This is why the visit of Dr Williams, with the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Moderator of the Free Churches, Revd David Coffey, and the Primate of the Armenian Church, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, is so important. By travelling from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, turning off down Star Street, and on into Manger Square, they will be staking the claim of the Christian world to the pilgrims’ right of passage.
Ever since Joseph and Mary made that journey, everyone is a citizen of Bethlehem. By visiting us, the Christian leaders are claiming their home. They will be showing the world not only how we, the Christians of Bethlehem, are now forced to live; they will also be sending a message to the Christians of the world that they must visit us.
Without a regular supply of pilgrims to our gentle, welcoming town, Christianity as a lived faith will be extinguished here. It is not just the living folk memory of the incarnation that would be lost, but a beacon of hope in the Middle East. If Christianity dies here, it will surely also die in the other centres of faith in the Holy Land.
Bethlehem needs the world, and the world needs Christians to survive and thrive in the place of the Redeemer’s birth. We need the Christians of the world to wake up to what is happening, and to come to claim their baptismal right. If the visit of the church leaders helps to bring that about, the prayers of our hard-pressed Christian community these past years will turn into a heavenly host of alleluias.
Leila Sansour is the Chief Executive of Open Bethlehem. www.openbethlehem.org